The Italians have a saying: 'One hand washes the other, and they both wash the face'. For half a century the most breathtaking cathedral of corruption has grown from foundations sunk in the pragmatism and cunning of that old peasant proverb.
The image of hands passing fabulous sums of money, smeared with blood through mutually beneficial deals with the Mafia, has become the symbol of the tangentopoli (bribesville) scandal. And the final act in this drama, in a perfect world, would be the victory of the Mani Pulite, or clean hands, team of investigating judges, and a new political dawn.
But in a country where very little is black or white, jubilation over the fall of the corrupt old class has already been soured over fears for the new order. An awful doubt is growing in the minds of even the most idealistic Italians. It goes like this: the sclerotic old system was certainly crooked, but it ensured consensus. Most people had a slice of the cake.
Then, in 1992, the web of collusion between political parties, industry and organised crime began to unravel after the confessions of a Milanese businessman. The corruption scandal, breathtaking in its scale and complexity, brought down the seven-times Prime Minister, Giulio Andreotti, and the socialist leader, Bettino Craxi. The cream of the political establishment fell with them, and voters abandoned their parties for the federalist Northern League, which campaigned on an anti-graft platform, or the neo-fascist MSI, unsullied by experience in government.
The elections of March 1994 swept away the vestiges of the old system of partitocrazia, or consensus politics, and polarised the country. Italy's new masters were elected because they had no murky political past (although this, too, is proving no longer quite as true as it seemed). The downside is that they have no political experience. And the spectres of populism and autocracy are raising their heads.
Meanwhile, the corruption investigations march on, engulfing a new sector of Italian society every day. The jails are overflowing and there is no end in sight - investigators reckon they will have to send 100,000 people through the courts if everyone involved is charged. So endemic was the system of backhanders that, almost by definition, any successful business will have had to pay bribes.
Clientelismo, a continuation of older Italian political traditions, began with the modern state in 1861. But what started as a transaction between individuals developed, during the Cold War years, into a machine for funding burgeoning party structures. For decades the Christian Democrats and the Socialists manoeuvred together to keep the Italian Communist Party (PCI) - the biggest in Western Europe - out of power. As the PCI became stronger, and its claims on a place in government more pressing, so their opponents poured money into their party machines to thwart it.
As the structures grew, so did the need for funds. Demands from party secretaries for kickbacks on public contracts became more extravagant. As recession set in at the end of the 1980s, making payment more painful, and the Iron Curtain collapsed, removing the bogey role of the PCI, businessmen balked.
The picture that has emerged from the stream of confessions since suggests another reason for the collapse of tangentopoli - greed. According to many an embittered Christian Democrat, the wily Mr Andreotti used to gauge carefully the level of bribe the market would bear. Then the Socialists, under Mr Craxi, joined the equation and began upping their demands in the early 1980s. With them came an unprecedented display of wealth. Industry, which had paid up to keep Andreotti in power, said 'Basta]' (Enough).
Experts calculated that the sleaze factor added about 5 per cent to the cost of each business transaction carried out by every Italian in 1992.
Mr Craxi refuses to return from his villa in Tunisia to face trials covering illegal party financing and personal corruption charges. Mr Andreotti is about to stand trial for collusion with the Mafia in the death of a journalist who was looking at links between organised crime and Italy's rulers.
But the Italian appetite for retribution remains unsated, and corrupt leaders make fine scapegoats. Moves to solve the judicial logjam by offering fines and amnesties to graft suspects who confessed were shouted down. And the greatest danger to the new government came from an outcry in July over its plans to curb the powers of the clean hands team.
The man who mooted those plans, the Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, was one of the main beneficiaries of the mood for change. Yet ever since he has been dogged by emerging allegations of corruption. His war with the judges, which threatens a constitutional crisis, is rooted in their suspicion of corruption at the heart of his business empire.
There is a growing uneasiness that far from being a force for change, Mr Berlusconi is like the old regime, only less competent. 'With populism has come a new provincialism in Rome. There is no sense of vision beyond their own backyard. The old class at least had some concept of the nation's place within Europe, of Italy's role in the world,' says one Western diplomat here.
The evolution towards an age of enlightenment is proving far slower, and more fraught with danger, than the public had been prepared to believe. 'One hand washes the other, and they both wash the face': but neither the hands or the face are yet clean.
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